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THE LAST CHALLENGE.
Next Lady-day, which fell on a Thursday, 'Bias called upon Mrs Bosenna with his rent and with the pleasing announcement that in a week or so he proposed to pay her a further sum of seven pounds eight shillings and fourpence; this being the ascertained half-year's dividend earned by the hundred pounds she had entrusted to his stewardship.
She warmly commended him. "Close upon fifteen per cent! I wonder-- But there! I suppose you won't tell me how it's done, not if I ask ever so?"
'Bias looked knowing and reminded her that to ask no questions was a part of her bargain. As a matter of fact it was also a part of his bargain with Mr Rogers, and he could not have told had he wished to tell.
"I suppose you've heard the latest news?" said he. "They've chosen me on the Harbour Board--Ship-owners' representative."
"I didn't even know there had been an election."
"No more there hasn't. Rogers made the vacancy, and managed it for me; retired in my favour, as you might say."
"Seems to me Mr Rogers must be weakenin' in his head."
"Oh no, he's not!" 'Bias assured her with a chuckle. "But he's pretty frail in the body. At his time o' life and with his infirmity a man may be excused, surely?"
"I reckon," said Mrs Bosenna, "there's few would have wept if Mr Rogers had superannuated himself years ago. Now if you'd told me he was turned out--"
"You're hard on Rogers!" he protested, tasting the joke of it.
"Well, I don't think he took on these jobs for his health, as they say; and so it comes hard to believe as he goes out o' them for that reason. But there! he may be an honester man than I take him for. . . . Well, and so you're becomin' a public man too! I congratulate you."
"I wouldn' call myself that," said 'Bias modestly. "But one or two have suggested that a fellow like me, with plenty of time on his hands, might look after a few small things and the way public money's spent on 'em." He might have claimed that at any rate he knew more of harbour affairs than Cai could possibly know of education: but he did not. To their honour, neither he nor Cai--though they ruffled when face to face before folks--ever spoke an ill word behind the other's back. "There's the dredgin', for one thing; and, for another, the way they're allowed to lade down foreign-goin' ships is a scandal."
"Is it the Harbour's business to stop that?"
"It ought to be somebody's business."
"You'll get nicely thanked," she promised, "if you interfere--and as a ship-owners' representative too!"
"There's another matter," confessed 'Bias. "They've asked me to put up for the Parish Council next month. There's a notion that, with this here Diamond Jubilee comin' on, the town ought to rise to the occasion."
"And you're the man to give it the lift!" said Mrs Bosenna gaily. "Is Captain Hocken standin' too?"
"They say so."
"Then I'll plump for both of you. Wait, though--I won't promise: or when the canvass starts you'll both be neglectin' me."
The next day Cai called in turn with his rent. "And there's another little matter," said he after handing it to her. "You remember that hundred pounds? Well there's a half-year's dividend declared and due on it, and the cheque's to arrive some time next week. What's the amount, d'ye guess?"
"Seven pounds eight shillings and fourpence. . . . Eh? I thought it might astonish you."
"It's--it's such an odd amount," she murmured.
"It's close upon fifteen per cent."
"Yes. You took my breath away for the moment. I wonder at the way you men--I mean, I wonder how you do it--turnin' money to such good account? 'Tis a gift I suppose; and you couldn' teach me, even if you would."
Cai received the compliment with a somewhat guilty smile.
"They tell me too," she continued, "that you are standin' for the Parish Council next month."
"Who told you?"
"Oh . . . a little bird!"
Cai did not guess at 'Bias under this description. "Well, you see, with this here Diamond Jubilee in the offing, there's a feelin' abroad that the town ought to sit up, as the sayin' is--"
"And you're the man to make it sit up!" said Mrs Bosenna gaily.
"Well now, I want you to help me."
Mrs Bosenna started, alert at once and on her guard; for the game of fence she had chosen to play with these two demanded a constant wariness.
But it seemed that for the moment Cai had no design to press his suit-- or no direct design.
"It's this way," he explained. "You know the stevedores, down at the jetties, are givin' their usual Whit-Monday regatta--Passage Regatta, as some call it? Well, they've made me President this year."
"And I've offered a Cup; which seemed the proper thing to do, under the circumstances. 'A silver cup, value 5 pounds, presented by the President, Caius Hocken, Esquire': it'll look fine 'pon the bills, and it's to go with the first prize of two guineas for sailin' boats not exceedin' fourteen feet over-all. There's what they call a one-design Class o' these in the harbour: which is good sport and worth encouragin'. There's no handicap in it either: the first past the line takes the prize--always the prettiest kind o' race to watch. Now the favour I ask is that, when the time comes, you'll hand the Cup to the winner."
"It--it'll look rather marked, won't it?" hesitated Mrs Bosenna. She had as small a disinclination as any woman to find herself the central figure in a show, and Cai (had he known it) was attacking one of the weakest points in her siege-defences. But to accept this offer--or (if you prefer it) to grant the favour--meant a move on the board which might too easily lead to a trap. "Besides," she objected, "you can't do that sort o' thing without a few words, and I've never made a public speech in my life."
"You leave the speechifyin' to me," said Cai reassuringly: but it did not reassure her at all. ("Good gracious!" she thought. "He's not the sort to take advantage of it--but if he did! . . . You can never trust men.")
Cai, misinterpreting the frown on her brow, went on to assure her further that he could manage a speech all right; at any rate, he would be able by Whit-Monday. He had--he would tell her in confidence--been taking some lessons in elocution of (or, as he put it, "off") Mr Peter Benny.
"Did you ever hear tell of a man called Burke?" he asked.
"'Course I did," answered Mrs Bosenna, albeit the question startled her. "My old nurse told me about him often. He used to go about snatchin' bodies."
Cai considered a moment, and shook his head. "I don't think mine can be the same, or Benny wouldn't have recommended him so highly. There was another fellow that learned to be a speaker by practisin' with his mouth full of pebbles, which struck me as too thoroughgoin' altogether, and 'specially when you're aimin' no higher than a Parish Council. To be sure," he confessed, "I did make a start with a brace of peppermint bull's-eyes, and pretty nigh choked myself. But Benny says that, for English public speakin', there's no such master as this Burke, and so I've sent for him."
"Gracious!" exclaimed Mrs Bosenna. "Won't he charge a terrible lot?-- with travellin' expenses too!"
"His works, I mean. The man's dead, and they're in six volumes."
"You'll never get through 'em then, between this and Whitsuntide. If I was you, I'd keep on at the peppermints."
* * * * * * *
Although the six volumes of Edmund Burke duly arrived, and Cai made a bold attempt upon their opening tractate, "A Vindication of Natural Society,"--thereby hopelessly bemusing himself, since he accepted its ironical arguments with entire seriousness--in the end he took a shorter way and procured Mr Benny to write his speeches for him.
These he got by heart in the course of long morning rambles; these he rehearsed with their accomplished author; these he declaimed in the solitude of his bed-chamber--until, one day, Mrs Bowldler (whom terror arresting, had held spellbound for some minutes on the landing) knocked in to know if Palmerston should run for the doctor.
By dint (or in spite) of them at the election of Parish Councillors Cai headed the poll with a total of 411 votes. 'Bias, who received 366, came fourth on the list of elected: but this was no disgrace--a triumph rather--for one who had omitted to be born in the town. By general consent the honours stood easy; though, on the strength of his poll, the new Council began by choosing Cai for its chairman. On him Troy laid thereby the chief responsibility for the Jubilee festivities now but two months ahead.
At this first Council meeting, and at the meetings of many committees subsequently called to make preparation for the great day, 'Bias said very little. Those--and they were many--who had looked for "ructions" between the two rivals, and had taken glee of the prospect, suffered complete disappointment.
"You see," he explained to Mr Rogers, "I don't hold by several things Cai Hocken and the Committee are doin'. But they be doin' 'em in the Queen's honour, after their lights: and 'tisn't fitly to use the occasion for quarrellin'. There's only one way o' forcin' a quarrel on me where Queen Victoria's consarned, and that is by speakin' ill of her."
"That's right," agreed Mr Rogers. "You've common ground in the Widow-woman."
"The Widow at Windsor, as they call her."
"Oh! I thought for a moment--"
"There's widows and widows," Mr Rogers blinked mischievously. "But look here--what's this I'm told about your interferin' down at the Harbour Board, tryin' to get the Commissioners to regylate the ladin' o' vessels?"
"Well, and why not?" asked 'Bias.
"Why not? For one thing you bet it isn' the Commissioners' business."
"It ought to be somebody's business to stop what's goin' on. Say 'tis mine, if you like."
"Look 'ee here, Cap'n Hunken," said Mr Rogers, showing his teeth. "If that's your game, better fit you was kickin' up a rumpus on the Parish Council than puttin' a spoke into honest trade. I didn' make room 'pon the Board for you to behave in that style."
"I don't care whether you did or you didn'," retorted 'Bias sturdily. "And 'honest trade' d'ye call it? robbin' the underwriters and puttin' seamen's lives in danger."
"Eh? . . . You're a nice man to talk, I must say! Come to me, you do, and want me to get you anything up to twenty per cent without risk. How d'ee think that's done in these days, with every one cuttin' freights? I gave you credit for havin' more sense."
'Bias stared. "See here," he said slowly, "if I'd known that hundred pound was to be put into any such wickedness, I'd have seen you further before trustin' you with it. As 'tis, I'll trouble you--"
"Hold hard, there!" Mr Rogers interrupted. "You're in a tarnation hurry every way, 'twould seem. Who told you as I'd put that hundred into any vessel below Plimsoll mark?"
"I thought you hinted as much."
"Then you thought a long sight too fast. If you must know, your money's in the old Saltypool, and old as she is, that steamship might be my child, the way I watch over her."
"The Saltypool! Why, she's the most scand'lous case as has gone out of harbour these three months!"
"I saw her with my own eyes alongside No. 3 jetty, the evenin' before she sailed. A calm night it was too; and she with her Plimsoll well under and a whole line o' trucks waitin' to be shot into her. She went out before daybreak, if you remember, and God knows how low she was by that time."
Mr Rogers's jaw dropped.
"The idiots!" he muttered. "When I told 'em--" He broke off. "I say, you're not pullin' my leg?"
"Saw her with my own eyes, I tell you," 'Bias assured him, wondering a little; for the old sinner's dismay was clearly honest.
"Then all I say is, you can call Fancy and tell her to fetch me a Bible, if there's one in the house, an' I'll swear to you I never knew it, an' I never seen it. What's more, I'll sack the captain, an' I'll sack the mate. What's more, I'll cable dismissal out to Philadelphy. What's more--"
"There, there!" interposed 'Bias. "You didn' know, and enough said! I don't want any man thrown out of employ. 'Tis the system I'm out to spoil."
"Skippers are a trouble-without-end in these days," Mr Rogers muttered on, staring gloomily at the fire in the grate; "specially to a man crippled like me. . . . You spend years sarchin' for a fool, an' you no sooner get the treasure, as you think--one you can trust for a plain ord'nary fool in all weathers--than he turns out a dam fool!"
On his way from the ship-chandler's 'Bias ran against Mr Philp, who paused in the roadway and eyed him, chewing a piece of news and chuckling.
"That friend o' yours is a wonnur!" preluded Mr Philp.
"Meanin' Caius Hocken?"
"Who else? . . . He's goin' a great pace in these days; but you won't tell me he has flown out o' that range? Yes, 'tis Cap'n Hocken I mean; our Mayor, as you may call him; and there's some as looks to see a silver cradle yet in his mayoralty."
"What's the latest?" 'Bias could not help putting the question, yet despised himself for it.
"He's President of the Stevedores' Regatta this year."
"Get along with your news--I heard it ten days ago."
"So you did, for I told you myself. But he's giving a silver cup for the fourteen-foot race."
"And I heard that, too."
"Ay: but what you don't know, maybe, is that he's been up to Rilla Farm tryin' to persuade Mrs Bosenna to attend on the Committee-ship an' hand the cup--his cup--to the winner."
"She's never consented?"
"Now I call that a master-stroke. That's the bold way to win a woman. 'Come along o' me, my dear, an' find yourself the lady patroness, life-size. . . . Madam, you'll excuse the liberty,--but may I have the igstreme honour to request you to take my arm in the full view of all this here assembled rabble?' So arm-in-arm it is, up the deck, and 'Ladies an' Gentlemen'--meanin' 'Attention, pray, all you scum o' the earth'--'I'll trouble you to observe strick silence while this lady, with whom you are all familiar--'"
"Well, 'familiar' is too strong a word, as you say. 'While this lady, with whom you're all acquainted, presents the gallant winner with a cup, value Five Pounds, which you may have reckoned as an igstravagance when you heard I was the donor, 'but will now reckernise as a sprat to catch a whale--that is, unless you're even bigger fools than I take ye for. 'Twas with the greatest difficulty I indooced Mrs Bosenna--'"
"She never would!" swore 'Bias.
"Well, as a matter o' fact, she hasn't. But you'll allow the trick was clever, and nothin' more left for the woman, if she'd yielded, but to be carried straight off to the altar. 'Twould have been expected of her, and no less."
"What has she done?"
"Taken a wise an' womanly course, as I hear. 'No,' says she, 'I'll go to bottomless brimstone before lendin' myself to such a dodge'--or words to that effect. 'But I'll tell 'ee what I will do,' says she, 'I'll offer this here silver cup on my own account, an' give it with my own hands to the winner. And you can stand by,' says she, 'an' look as pompous as you please.' Either that, or that in so many words. I'm givin' you the gist of it, as it reached me."
"Thank 'ee," said 'Bias, perpending and digging up the roadway with the point of his stick. "'Tis to be her own prize, you say?"
"Yes, an' presented with her own hands. If I was you--bein' a trifle late as you are on the handicap--I'd sail in an' collar that prize. 'Twould be a facer for him."
"Whit-Monday's not till the seventh o' June. Four clear weeks: an' Boatbuilder Wyatt could knock you up a shell in half that time. He gets cleverer with every boat of the class; and with a boat built to race once only he could make pretty well sure."
Later that afternoon Mr Philp, who never lost an occasion to advertise himself, paid a call on Mr Wyatt, boatbuilder.
"I found a new customer for you this afternoon," he announced, winking mysteriously. "If Cap'n Hunken should call along you'll know what I mean."
* * * * * * *
On his homeward road the industrious man had a stroke of good luck. He espied Captain Hocken, and made haste to overtake him.
"Good evenin', Cap'n Cai!"
"Ah--Mr Philp? Good evenin' to 'ee."
"It's like a providence my meetin' you; for as it chances you was the last man in my mind. I happened down to Wyatt's yard just now, and--if you'll believe me--there's reason to believe he'll get an order to-morrow for another 14-footer,"
"Ay? . . . What for?"
"Why, to enter for the cup you're givin' on Whit-Monday."
"You're mistaken," said Cai. "'Tis Mrs Bosenna that's givin' the cup, not I."
"What? With her own hands?"
"To be sure. Why not?"
"Then that accounts for it," said Mr Philp gleefully, rubbing his hands. "He's a deep one, is your friend Hunken! It did strike me as odd, too-- his givin' an order to Wyatt in all this hurry: but now I understand."
"Drat the man! what is it you understand?"
"Why, as you know, Wyatt can knock him a shell together that'll win the race under everybody's nose. 'Tis a child's play, if you don't mind castin' the boat next day an' content yourself with scantlin' like a packin' case. At least, 'twould be child's play to any one but Wyatt, who can't help buildin' solid, to save his life. If the man had consulted me, I'd have recommended Mitchell. Mitchell never had a length o' seasoned wood in his store: he can't afford the capital. But to my mind he can--take him as a workman--shape a boat better than Wyatt ever did yet."
"And to mine," Cai agreed.
"The cunning of it, too! He to take the prize from her under your nose and you standin' by and lookin' foolish. For, let alone the craft, they say Cap'n Hunken can handle a small boat to beat any man in this harbour. He cleared a whole prize-list out in Barbadoes, I've heard."
"What, 'Bias? Don't you be afraid. He can't steer a small boat for nuts."
"Dear me! Then I must have been misinformed, indeed."
"You have been," Cai assured him. "I reckon Mitchell can knock up a boat to give fits to anything of Wyatt's; and if 'Bias--if Cap'n Hunken is countin' on Wyatt to help him put the fool on me, it may happen he'll learn better."
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